Note: This article may contain images and topics that some find unsettling.
In a cabin on a snowy mountain, a prank gone wrong between friends leads to two teenage girls disappearing, with a police search ending unsuccessfully. The girls’ friends, responsible for the prank, decide to revisit the cabin a year later. During their stay, the group are split up, pursued by a psycho hell-bent on torturing them psychologically and physically. With no help arriving until the morning, the crew must avoid the peril they find themselves trapped in.
You would be forgiven for assuming this describes a horror film, yet it’s actually one of the PS4’s newest big titles, Until Dawn. It’s not the first of its kind, however the game is a shining example of the parallels emerging between video games and cinema. Until Dawn utilises its cast, which includes Hayden Panettiere (Heroes, Nashville), Rami Malek (Mr. Robot, Need for Speed) and Brett Dalton (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D), both vocally and physically by using motion capture alongside the actors’ voices. The characters feel more lifelike in their physicality, and if it weren’t for the (admittedly realistic) graphics, the game would feel more like a film.
The development of such titles, bearing parallels to cinema, suggests a shift towards video games as film-like products, perhaps even alternatives to films. They portray the same level of spectacle and narrative as motion pictures as well as an ever-improving sense of realism and star power, yet add a sense of control and choice that movies lack. An argument can therefore be presented that video games are becoming just as much of a cinematic experience as cinema itself.
Until Dawn reflects this idea well. It fits in well with horror games such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill, employing jump scares, psychological terror and physical gore, as well as gameplay elements such as free exploration and predetermined camera angles. However, it refuses to rely solely on these elements to impact players. Instead, Until Dawn is framed as a cinematic experience, seamlessly switching between gameplay and cutscenes as if the game were one long movie. The lack of fades between these is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also less disruptive. It soothes the player into the experience, as if they were sat in the cinema watching the events unfold.
This isn’t to say Until Dawn rejects typical notions of gameplay, nor does it wish to be a movie. Player control is still a key concept in how the game plays, yet it’s also used to determine the story’s path. The choices made in the game, alongside the player’s skill, impacts where the story leads and how the protagonists develop. One scene depicts a character (Matt) witnessing his girlfriend (Emily) with her ex-boyfriend (Mike), and how Matt reacts impacts what happens later on. Dropping the issue can lead to the characters working together better in the future, but a negative reaction can open up more story between the three of them.
The concept of player choice crafting various different potential narratives is known as the “butterfly effect” system, and it’s the crux of Until Dawn’s combination of gameplay and cinema. It’s not a brand new concept (The Walking Dead games benefit heavily from this), yet it’s one that feels effortless here. Changing the outcome of the story not only creates a reason to replay the game, but also eliminates game overs by establishing a full story around the player’s errors. Replayability is something which many video games benefit from, yet becoming immersed in a full story instead of facing an abrupt end (and needing to restart from an earlier point) is a concept very much on the motion picture end of the spectrum.
The end product is a video game which, instead of attempting to usurp cinema, blends effortlessly with it in order to present the audience with the best of both worlds. It’s a game where players can replay multiple times and stumble upon new clues about the game’s mysteries, or follow a new path to an entirely different truth. It’s also a game where, no matter what the player chooses, the story is told as if it were the only version of events. In other words, each path is presented as if it were as static and unchanging as film.
Until Dawn is a game where the cinematic scope is vital to its presentation. It’s important to note that other titles utilise similar ideas to its concepts of the “butterfly effect” and film-like visuals suggesting that this game is not a frontrunner, but a development of these emerging elements. It’s also important to note that not all video games will adapt to these styles and gameplay models – some, such as the Mario franchise, naturally clash due to their simplicity and linearity. What titles such as Until Dawn instead suggest is that not only is the combination of gaming and cinema becoming easier to create, but the impact movies can have on video games, should developers choose to embrace it, could be grand.